Women’s changing role in war

Women’s changing role in war

The presence of women in the Canadian military goes back over a century

Women have served in the Canadian military since 1885, when nurses provided care to the Canadian troops in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon in the West Rebellion. Their tour of duty lasted four weeks.

By the First World War (1914-1918) nursing became increasingly organized and recognized. More than 3,000 women served with the Royal Canadian Medical Corps and close to 2,500 went overseas where they served close to the front lines in hospitals, on ships and in combat zones. During the war, more than 40 nurses lost their lives while in service.

During the Second World War (1939-1945) Canadian women were not allowed to serve in combat but were still greatly involved in the war effort.

Close to 4,500 nurses served in World War II and in 1941 a Women’s Division was created for all three branches of the military. By this time more than 50,000 women served in the Canadian Armed Forces, including working as clerks, mechanics, parachute riggers, wireless operators and photographers.

On Aug. 13, 1941, the Royal Canadian Air Force established a Women’s Division and some 17,000 Women served. Nora Smart was one of them.

When Smart served in the Canadian Air Force she was working at a post office in Ottawa from 1944 to January 1946. She was a part of a team that was responsible for sending mail overseas to air force troops. It was during World War II and it was a tumultuous time.

“The part that was the saddest about (working in the post office) was when a ship would be torpedoed and all the mail would come back to us,” Smart said. “Occasionally some of those ships would go down.”

Any mail left after a blast would be sorted through to figure out who sent it, or who it was going to.

“If [the mail] was in pretty good shape we re-wrapped it and sent it on to whoever it was sent for, otherwise if we couldn’t find the return we’d send it back to the person because prisoners of war were only allowed so many parcels,” Smart said. “It was important that we let whoever know that was sending it that it hadn’t gone so they could send another one if they wanted to.”

Smart said all mail coming from overseas was edited and scanned for anything that could give away locations of where troops were stationed. Information would often be blacked out, she said.

Growing up on a farm, the idea of moving to a city appealed to Smart and after a friend began working for the military, she too decided to seek employment when she turned 18.

“Also part of it was I really wanted to be part of what my brothers were part of because I always felt like I should be able to do what my brothers could,” Smart added.

Her two brothers were in the army, one went through North Africa and Italy while the other went through Juno Beach and into France where he was wounded.

“One of the things that was really bad was waiting for the telegram to tell you, in our case, that my brother had been wounded in France and flown back to England,” Smart said. “We didn’t know if he was going to live or not. He was hit with shrapnel and had to have reconstructive surgery on his face.”

Smart said both her brothers came back alive but that there were many people who were devastated by the death of loved ones.

“I think a war makes you very aware of a lot of things; like what’s important and what isn’t,” she said.

During the war, Smart said everyone lived by their radios.

“I can remember being in my earlier teens and being home and we all had to be really quiet for the six o’clock news,” Smart said. “We just all listened to what was going on all the time and we were very aware of what was going on.”

She said that like the letters, a lot of what was heard on the radio was probably screened.

“I’m sure a lot of it was propaganda and we didn’t always get what was the truth,” she said.

The day the war ended, Smart said Ottawa was in “total shut down.”

“No business except restaurants were open,” she said. “People were parading. Everybody was out on the streets celebrating and it was a wonderful feeling.”

Today, at age 93, Smart has been a member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 134 in Shawnigan Lake for 47 years.

Vetran Janet McKee, who joined the Canadian Naval Reserve in 1975 and the regular force in 1984, said the presence of women serving grew as the years went by.

“There wasn’t really a lot of women I would say earlier on in my career. When I was on the ship, with about 245 people on board, I’d say maybe about 45 were women,” McKee said. “I don’t think it was a big thing on young gal’s minds (at that time). It’s been in the press a lot more and because of that, people have heard more stories about it.”

McKee, who worked in administration and finance with the Canadian military, said she became interested in the military in high school when a friend of hers joined the reserves.

“They would go away for the summers and train and go on exercises and they would make money for university. I thought that was a great idea,” she said. “First I went down and watched a little bit, one of then nights they were parading at the reserve unit and I thought, this isn’t for me, and a few months later I changed my mind and I joined and I had lots of fun in it. I was there for nine years before I ended up joining the regular force.”

When she first began serving, McKee said women were not allowed in combat roles, which began to change in 1982 when the Armed Forces were required to consider the equality of women in the services and permit them into all military roles. It took seven more years, until 1989, for all combat roles to finally be opened to women.

“When I joined, women weren’t going to sea, women weren’t in army units, they were not first line in any way, shape or form and there was a lot of resistance to that as time went on,” McKee said. “But of course, like everything, we move ahead for the positive.”

During her time serving, McKee said her fondest memories are those of camaraderie.

“I think the friendships that you can make and the bonds are ones I can’t really compare to anything else, it’s very rewarding,” she said.

McKee, who in a member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 91, served for 34 years and retired medically in 2009. On Nov. 11, she will go to the Cenotaph in Langford and pay her respects.

By 2011, women made up about 15 per cent of the Canadian military, with more than 7,900 female personnel serving in regular force and more than 4,800 women serving in the primary reserve. Out of that number, 225 women are part of the regular combat force and 925 are enlisted in the primary reserve combat force.

karly.blats@vancouverislandfreedaily.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Michael Demers, performing here as a member of The Lonely, died May 1 after a year-long battle with leukemia. (Photo by Benji Duke)
Victoria music community mourning Michael Demers

Veteran singer-songwriter, co-founder of The Lonely dies at 63 due to leukemia

The Royal B.C. Museum has added a tamba dining set, used by a Punjabi man on his voyage to Canada in 1927, to its ‘100 Objects of Interest’ online collection. (Courtesy of Royal B.C. Museum)
Punjabi dining set added to Royal B.C. Museum’s ‘100 Objects of Interest’ collection

Set used by Indar Singh Gill on his voyage from Punjab to Canada in 1927

Victoria-born musician Bryce Dane Soderberg took to Instagram Monday to call out the Greater Victoria School District on its proposed cuts to elementary and middle school music programs. (Bryce Dane Soderberg/Instagram)
Victoria-born Lifehouse vocalist calls out SD61 on proposed music cuts

‘It will be a big loss to future generations’ Bryce Dane Soderberg posted to his Instagram

Musqueam and Qualicum First Nations artist, Mathew Andreatta, next to several of his ongoing projects, including carvings and illustrations. (Submitted photo)
Island artist considers art a means to reconnect with his Indigenous identity

Andreatta thought of TOSH as a space of learning and creation

Nicolle Nattrass and Michael Armstrong are presenting an online reading on May 9. (Photos courtesy Joni Marcolin/Heather Armstrong)
Nanaimo playwrights present online Mother’s Day script readings

Nicolle Nattrass and Michael Armstrong to read from in-progress plays

Marianne Turley is one of this year’s City of Nanaimo Culture and Heritage Award winners for Honour in Culture. (Bulletin file photo)
Longtime Vancouver Island Symphony board member gets posthumous culture award

Marianne Turley receives City of Nanaimo Culture and Heritage Award for Honour in Culture

The CVAC Fine Arts Show is always something to see and 2021 promises to be no different, as they adopt a fully multimedia approach. (File photo)
Cowichan Valley Fine Arts Show goes multimedia for 2021

The show, which runs from May 1-22 will be available both in person and online.

Dinner After a Death, a painting by Sooke artist Bryan Cathcart is part of a collection featuring his work at the Outsiders and Others Gallery in Vancouver. (Contributed - Bryan Cathcart)
Sooke artist finds creativity by expanding artistic horizons

Bryan Cathcart, 26, featured at Vancouver gallery

Viking-inspired fantasy writer Joshua Gillingham of Nanaimo and Seattle-based Islamic science fiction editor Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad are co-editing ‘Althingi – The Crescent and the Northern Star.’ (Photos submitted, illustration by Lada Shustova/Figue)
Nanaimo author co-editing historical anthology connecting Vikings and Muslims

Joshua Gilligham presents ‘Althingi – The Crescent and the Northern Star’

Saltair-based writer, Krista May. (Janet Kelly photo)
Island writers make long-list for 2021 CBC Short Story Prize

Krista May and Angie Ellis among 33 finalists selected out of over 3,000 entrants

A writer studying in England drew from her roots growing up in Sooke for a story that’s been short-listed for a prestigious international prize.
Former Sooke resident up for prestigious writing award

Cara Marks earns nomination for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Most Read